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|Atlanta’s gay-owned bookstores strive to stay open|
|by Dyana Bagby and Matt Schafer|
|December 09, 2011 00:00|
Sara Luce Look, co-owner of Atlanta’s Charis Books & More, remembers when the chain Barnes & Noble opened up a mega store in Los Angeles across the street from the small independent feminist bookstore Sisterhood in 1995.
Last month, that Barnes & Noble closed but not before it forced the closing of Sisterhood in 1999 — just a few years shy of Sisterhood’s 30th anniversary.
“Sisterhood was the oldest feminist bookstore in the country at the time and Barnes & Noble put them out of business. Now the major chain is closing and it’s sad that neither are there anymore,” Look said.
“When I think about Sisterhood closing, that’s when I think things really started to go bad.”
Charis Books is 37 years old. In 1996, owners and supporters of the store took note of the change coming in the world of independent bookstores and founded Charis Circle, a non-profit arm run by a volunteer board that has one paid part-time staff member. Charis Circle brings the “more” to the bookstore’s mission and organizes programming, including author readings, book groups and writing workshops.
In March, Charis Circle announced plans to open the Charis Feminist Center — a larger space than the small house the bookstore and non-profit occupy in Little Five Points. The new feminist center would include the bookstore, a coffee shop, free Wi-Fi, and larger meeting spaces that could also be rented to other organizations.
At a Dec. 3 fundraiser featuring a concert by Doria Roberts, Charis leaders announced a Cornerstone Society campaign seeking 100 people to donate between $20-$25 a month to sustain Charis Circle as it continues to plan the feminist center.
“We are still in the visioning and planning stages,” said Charis Circle board chair Kelley Alexander. “We are still looking for a location. It’s going to be a longer process than we hoped.”
In March, Charis leaders said they planned to open the new feminist center in March 2012. A $1 million capital campaign was also announced, but that’s been put aside due to the tough economic climate, Alexander added.
Instead, a series of fundraisers are planned for next year in addition to the Cornerstone Society.
“It’s going to be a longer process than we originally thought,” Alexander said. “But we have not derailed at all. The feminist center is still happening. We will reconsider a capital campaign next year. I’m still very hopeful. A lot of people want this to happen.”
In Midtown, Outwrite owner Philip Rafshoon is undergoing his own campaign to “Save Outwrite Books.” In November, Rafshoon announced the LGBT bookstore was closing at its longtime location at 10th Street and Piedmont Avenue because rent is too high.
A recent $1,000 donation from the Lloyd E. Russell Foundation to Outwrite was the first in an ongoing campaign to raise needed funds for the store to move when a new location is found — or, if enough raised, a “staying” fund, Rafshoon announced at the store’s Dec. 3 anniversary party celebrating 18 years.
“What I said [when the store opened] is that there will be a time that we won’t need a gay and lesbian bookstore. When people can come out to their parents, where they won’t be persecuted in churches, schools, when there won’t be any issues in their families. Right now there are a lot of people who think that we are at that point. In fact, we had some good friends who ran a book store and they said mission accomplished… our mission is not accomplished in any shape way or form. There is still a lot of work to be done,” Rafshoon said.
“We had someone … who said this is an obsolete business model, that a bookstore just doesn’t work anymore,” Rafshoon said. “I just think that a community-based business is never going to be an obsolete business model… businesses that support the community, that employ local people, that support local vendors, that bring three times as much money back into the community are never going to be an obsolete business model, and no matter what happens don’t ever believe that this isn’t the right way to go.”
Look of Charis agrees with Rafshoon that local independent businesses, including bookstores, are the lifeblood of any city, but acknowledges that the internet and e-books are making it harder for existing bookstores to find ways to thrive as they once did when people treasured actual, tangible books.
“We are still trying to figure that out,” Look said when asked about surviving in today’s economic climate.
The tally of remaining feminist and LGBT bookstores across the country is down dramatically — yet Atlanta has one of each.
“Atlanta is lucky to have both — that’s amazing,” she said. “I’m also thinking, ‘Wow, we’re still here.”
On Dec. 14, Charis Books & More hosts a meeting for supporters to give input on what they want to see in a new feminist center.
“There are people out there who still appreciate radical spaces,” Look said. “They come to us, wanting a respite from a crazy world. They come in and tell us, ‘This is a safe space for me.’
“And if people value independent voices, books that are carefully selected and not just part of what’s bought in volume by large chains, we hope they will want to buy from us,” Look said.
— Matt Schafer contributed
Top photo: Charis employee Elizabeth Anderson (far left) and the store’s co-owners Angela Gabriel and Sara Luce Look with Charis Circle board chair Kelley Alexander at the benefit concert by Doria Roberts for a new feminist center. (by Dyana Bagby)
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